The Lab in 20th-century Art and Architecture

26-27 May 2020
New York, U.S.A.

On Tuesday 26 and Wednesday 27 May 2020, a colloquium about the laboratory in twentieth-century art and architecture will take place at the Faculty of Architecture’s NYhub in New York City. The event is organised by ARP members Rajesh Heynickx, Filip Mattens and Janno Martens, together with Stéphane Symons from the Institute for Philosophy, and is part is part of the research project Architectural Space Thought and Taught. A keynote lecture will be delivered by Jorge Otero-Pailos (Columbia University). The colloquium will investigate the various ways in which practitioners across the arts and architecture have adopted the practices, settings and metaphors of the laboratory over the course of the twentieth century:

In Space, Time and Architecture (1941), Sigfried Giedion claimed that abstract art’s new representation of space “was accomplished step by step, much as laboratory research gradually arrives at its conclusion through long experimentation.” Earlier in the book, he had mused about the scientific method (“a great tradition”) as architecture’s prime example. He was writing this at a time when an increasing amount of artistic and architectural endeavours were indeed taking place in self-proclaimed ‘laboratories’. This tendency can be traced back to the historical artistic avant-garde: the pioneering workshop didactics of the Bauhaus represented a technical, experimental and collaborative counterpart to the humanist Beaux-Arts tradition, and for a short time the architects and artists at Vkhumetas, the Russian state art and technical school in Moscow, even created proper laboratory settings through the use of all kinds of apparatus and standardised testing. Other, more associative uses of the term were also deployed, notably by Le Corbusier, who once referred to his painting studio as a laboratory.

With the influx of European émigrés to the United States in the 1930s, this novel research paradigm got hold across the Atlantic as well: Josef Albers continued the Bauhaus tradition of experimentation at Black Mountain College from 1933 onwards, and in 1936 Friedrich Kiesler founded a ‘Design-Correlation Laboratory’ at Columbia, with a New York ‘Laboratory School of Industrial Design’ also being set up that year. Jean Labatut’s architectural laboratory at Princeton, completed in 1950, would be operational for over fifteen years. From the late 1950s onwards, an increasing amount of research in the architectural and urban field was operating under the moniker of laboratory, notably at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. At the same time, Gyorgy Kepes was the first visual artist to become a tenured professor there, signalling the increasing scientific affinity with artistic research paradigms. Conversely, the artist’s studio – which used to be regarded as a place of solitary contemplation rather than collaborative action – acquired new meaning as a privileged space of experimentation due to the growing attention for the practices of visual artists such as Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol.

While the initial frame of reference was often informed by empirical natural sciences, later iterations of these laboratories also encompassed the social sciences. This allowed for psychological research and field work studies to become models for artistic or architectural research as well. Since then, the paradigm of the laboratory grew in popularity as quickly as its meaning diminished in specificity: contemporary examples include everything from design studios and fieldwork to the ‘living labs’ of experimental urban schemes.

For the colloquium, a call for papers has been issued to invite researchers working on this topic to present their work at the event. Paper proposals should be sent to before 1 March 2020. More information about the colloquium as well as the requirements for the call can be found below: